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Item - The Golem of Brick Lane

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(pre-release mockup)

Series: Fantom Empires — no. 1
Author: Sutherland, Jon(athan)
Illustrator: Chalk, Gary
Date: October, 2005
ISBN: 1840466987 / 9781840466980
Length: 362 pages (500 sections)
Number of Endings: 7
User Summary: You become involved in a strange adventure after investigating a Jewish temple under threat from vigilantes due to alleged golem attacks.
Demian's Thoughts:

First, an apology and a lament -- the release of this book in 2005 was a fairly significant event: the first major original gamebook release in some time to feature a detailed game system and the promise of a continuing, Lone Wolf-style storyline. The author very kindly arranged to have a review copy sent my way, and I immediately put up some details on the site and started reading it... then I got distracted. Repeatedly. It is now 2007, and I finally finished the book. At this point, the continuation of the series, at least with its original publisher, seems unlikely. My apologies to Mr. Sutherland for my extreme tardiness in this review, and all the more so if my inability to get my act together and generate buzz for the book contributed in even a small way to the lack of a follow-up (though I'm not so immodest as to think that's very likely).

Anyway, on to the review....

Given the rarity of gamebooks of its type at the time of its release, The Golem of Brick Lane has a lot to live up to. At the same time, it is such a welcome arrival that it's easy to give it extra credit simply for existing. These external conditions make reviewing the book something of a challenge, and the fact that it seems to have good points and bad points in nearly equal numbers does nothing to make the task easier.

In terms of structure, the book has a little of everything -- relatively calm periods of questioning characters and gathering information, a couple of dungeon-type complexes to explore, and some action sequences making use of strategic decision-making alongside the book's combat system. In the end, the book feels fairly linear, since the plot unfolds in generally the same way regardless of the reader's choices. In some areas, the interactivity is limited to deciding the order in which to take otherwise inevitable actions. In other places, particularly the exploration sequences, there are more meaningful choices, with different read-throughs leading to different locations that reveal different aspects of the plot. Overall, the book's structure is reasonably satisfying, though it's hard not to feel railroaded from time to time.

The challenge level is about right -- you're unlikely to successfully complete the book on the first try, but with the right skills and characteristic values, you should be able to reach a successful conclusion without becoming frustrated. The game system behind everything is perfectly functional, though it's somehow less satisfying than that of Lone Wolf (to which this series must inevitably be compared). Some features are underutilized -- inventory management doesn't really serve much purpose since there's little opportunity for strategic resource management, and tracking money (complete with authentically confusing Victorian currency) is tedious and fiddly yet serves no apparent purpose (as far as I can tell, you can't run out of money or actually use it for anything other than mandatory things like cab fair).

Combat runs pretty smoothly, though there are enough battles against multiple opponents that it would have been nice to have had clearer instructions on how this should work. The characteristic-and-skill system works well, though I felt that brawn was favored over brains -- there's more to be gained by investing in Body and Nerve since these affect Constitution and Combat Skill in addition to opening up skills. Of course, I suppose trying to get through the book with a high-Intellect character might be a good excuse for a more challenging replay and reveal some extra plot details missed by characters lacking the Linguistics and Scholarship skills.

I had high hopes for the story here, if only because the Steampunk setting is an interesting change of pace from the usual fantasy gamebook stuff. The adventure unfolds in a fairly satisfying way, revealing clues and twists as it goes, but I was never fully engaged. For me, the biggest problem was characterization. You spend a lot of time in this book talking to various characters, but almost without exception, your only input on the conversation is the order in which you ask questions. Even in rare cases where you choose between significantly different paths of conversation, it has no impact on the story. As in many computer role-playing games, this shallow interactivity detracts from the story and actually makes the book less immersive than if it had simply had longer linear passages of dialogue that served to reveal more about the personality of Nicholas Fantom and the other occupants of his world. As it is, apart from a few memorable exceptions, I had difficulty remembering who all of the characters were, which sometimes caused problems when a choice asked me if I had already met with a particular individual.

The book also suffers from a few minor yet jarring continuity errors (being told about things you already know about, encountering people for a second time when there was no first time, etc.). These could probably have been avoided by removing some unnecessary interactivity from the book -- allowing the reader to perform actions in any order they like isn't necessarily a good thing if the order is of no importance to the gameplay; I'd rather leave the choices in the spots where they make a difference to the outcome of the book and focus on good storytelling everywhere else.

In the end, The Golem of Brick Lane is a flawed but entirely playable adventure that could be the start of something bigger and more interesting. At this point, I don't expect to see any follow-ups, but I certainly wouldn't hesitate to play through them if they did come along. In spite of my many criticisms, I have a feeling that Nicholas Fantom might end up growing on me over time if given the chance....

More reviews by Demian

Paul T's Thoughts:

So we have one of the first new gamebooks in years. And when this came out, it was only this or the god-awful Eye of the Dragon. Although now we have Howl of the Werewolf and Stormslayer, making this a rather poor choice by comparison.

The problem is, this book is not really interactive. You start off building your character. It's point-based, which seems cool. You have 24 points to divide between 3 stats. Except the only number in the stats that matters is 9, since that gives you all the skills. An encounter in the book will kill you if you do not have 9 body, and you need 9 Nerve to use combat skills (you will mostly likely die if you do do not have the Nerve skills, which double the damage you deal in combat and make you harder to hit). The only real danger in this book is combat, making intellect useless except for obtaining exposition... which is generally both useless and something this book has too much of.

This is rather indicative of all the false choices the book gives you. You choose where to investigate from several locations... but you have to investigate them all so you can't miss anything. You choose what order to investigate a place, but you have to do every plot-relevant thing there, so you're only choosing the order. Then you move onto talking to people. You choose who to talk to, but you have to talk to everyone. You choose what to talk about, but you have to talk about everything. Do you notice a pattern here? After proceeding without your choices having any effect, you then get to choose between left, right and centre a few times, while being told no difference between the 3.

These choices generally take you to places where nothing really happens, but occasionally you have to fight, though there are healing points so you're rarely in danger, unless you put a 9 into intellect.

The combat is basically a simplified and dull version of the Lone Wolf series, where Combat Skill does nothing but determine who strikes first, and your damage is SOLELY your weapon. It gets very repetitive, there's no strategy, and there's lots of fighting. Since there are only 7 endings in this "game" book, 2 of which are the same instant death, 2 of which are the same ending (true to the tone of this book, you find out your choices have had no effect on anything, and continue on to the next plot you were going to do anyway, even though you don't want to), one of them is exactly the same ending but unhappier, and I couldn't find the other 2, but I'm guessing they're just deaths from going down the wrong left/right corridor and doing something stupid. I'd try to find them, but the immense linearity, and numerous long boring combats do not help this book's replay value

The story isn't even good enough to justify this linearity. There's a golem. He kills people. He's a Russian weapon for a guy the plot won't let you kill (and like everything else, it doesn't matter if you try, nothing happens either way). You walk around the railroad book investigating the mandatory locations, learning very little at a time, but reading through long paragraphs where nothing happens.

This was meant to be the first in a series of 6, but from the stellar performance, this will be the first and the last.

Virtual Reality shows you can have good narrative AND SOME ACTUAL CHOICES.

Overall: I want my time back.

More reviews by Paul T

Special Thanks:Thanks to Jon Sutherland for the pre-release cover mockup and to Ryan Lynch for the other images.
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